Against the backdrop of the recent war in Iraq, a push for increased funding for veterans' healthcare may have more of a chance of success this year than in years past, proponents are saying.
Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health last week launched a push for mandatory federal funding for VA health, a proposal that repeatedly has met failure in the past. Complicating their efforts, however, is the ongoing Medicare reform debate, which could result in a significant number of veterans leaving the VA system if prescription drug coverage is provided to Medicare enrollees.
Last week, Leo Mackay Jr., deputy secretary of the VA, told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs that the Bush administration opposes mandatory funding. Currently, veterans' healthcare must compete with other programs such as Head Start for funding. Proponents of a VA funding bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) argue the result has been underfunding of veterans' healthcare.
Under Evans' bill, funding for the VA system would be guaranteed with a set formula determining how much the system gets each year, in contrast to the haphazard system that currently exists because of the discretionary nature of the funding.
The bill would cost $197 billion over the course of a decade.
A presidential task force earlier this month pointed out the need for guaranteed funding, citing a "growing mismatch between funding and demand."
That has led to a cutback in services and rationing of care for veterans. In response to waits for doctors' appointments that last up to six months, the VA recently froze enrollment of veterans with nonservice-related illnesses and injuries through September, reducing the number of future enrollees by an estimated 164,000 and saving the system about $30 million.
"The VA was not created to serve only those veterans it can afford to serve," Evans said.
While the number of affected veterans is minuscule compared with the 6.8 million in the system, the move by VA Secretary Anthony Principi in January raised the hackles of many members of Congress.
For VA administrators, the current funding system has meant not knowing how much they will be getting or when the funds will arrive, making it difficult if not impossible to fill open positions, said other speakers at a press event last week.
If the Evans bill is passed, funding for fiscal 2005 will be $30.9 billion, or 130% of $23.8 billion, the 2003 funding level. After 2005, the amount will be based on the number of enrolled veterans and other eligible members and the percentage increase in the consumer price index for hospital and related services.
The president's budget for fiscal 2004 includes $25.2 billion for VA care.